What is Happening Downtown?

New Bedford Economic Development Council
Downtown New Bedford’s evolving streetscape reflects a national, even international, trend: downtowns are increasingly the place to be.
As long ago as nearly a decade ago, the Fannie Mae Foundation and the Brookings Institute projecting urban population growth from 1998-2010 showed that several of America’s largest cities would become increasingly favorable in the housing market, even those cities that had experienced serious decline in the 1960s and 1970s such as Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. Nearly ten years following these projections, the forecast has largely been realized, extending to smaller cities. Recognizing this trend, local developers have created a number of innovative loft and condominium projects throughout the downtown area. Factors that appear to, in part, drive the renewed interest in urban living are the decline in crime rates and rising gas costs, leading to a desire to live in a pedestrian-friendly environment close to amenities like libraries, theatres, museums, banks, restaurants, post offices, and shops.
With a long-established core of art galleries, the Zeiterion, and world-class museums, the New Bedford urban pioneers are finding a growing cadre of eclectic restaurants and drinking emporiums (from the very un-buttoned No Problem taqueria to the elegant Cork tapas bar) and diverse shops offering clothing (Attia), personal care products (Blush Beauty Bar) and even second-hand bagpipes (Joe Piper). Showcase events like the monthly Arts! History! Architecture! (AHA) theme nights have had significant success in drawing people downtown to sample different types of music, food, shopping experiences, free museum access, and family-oriented activities.
Both anecdotal and formal research information show that the new housing opportunities in downtown New Bedford reflect the national trend of appealing to young people, college students, and “empty nesters” who are generally better educated and consumers of the arts, cultural events, and locally-owned restaurants and bistros rather than the nationally-owned, ubiquitous chains. By attracting them to the downtown neighborhoods, the demand for goods and services will increase at a sustainable rate because so many consumers will be continually present throughout the day and into the evenings. Locally-owned businesses, in turn, cycle money throughout the local economy by using local accountants, lawyers and other professional services to support their business.
The emergence of the New Bedford downtown landscape has been driven in part by the relocation of a significant portion of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and a New Bedford-based campus of Bristol Community College, through the adaptive reuse of the old Star Store building which once served a vibrant downtown community decades ago and once again becomes a key focal point for re-energizing the neighborhood. It is a success story, created by the synergies of the state and local governments recognizing a new opportunity and working with private development to make it happen.
Eugenie Ladner Birch, in her article Dowtown Living: A Deeper Look (July 2002 issue of Land Lines published on the web by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy), noted this type of phenomenon: “Public/private partnerships have been essential in achieving changes in downtown living. The existence of productive interplay between focused interest groups, especially the growing number of business improvement district leaders, and public planning and economic development units has resulted in bold, imaginative, creative and thoughtful approaches to creating opportunities.”
The initial work to invigorate the downtown area probably seemed very slow but those residents and businessmen who persevered through some difficult times are doubtless reaping the benefits that a critical mass of new condos, apartments, shops, offices and restaurants have reached today.
As the national data indicate, the tide is rising for our downtown and others around the country. The continuing emergence of the City’s targeted efforts, many new shop owners, and many pioneering foundational owners are making New Bedford’s downtown a destination all over again.
Much more to come in the near future…..
September 24, 2007

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